Random Beatings and You
The tests at the VA hospital did not go well. The nurse was a butcher, couldn't get the needle right. A vein in your arm collapsed, which leads you to question whether or not this is any way to make a living. You are a carpenter who can't stand work. It beats you, makes your hands hurt, your ears, back, neck, even your fingernails, which take sliver after slam after stub. There are, however, five crisp twenty-dollar bills in your pocket. You are in a bar. You have a drink and the drugs they tried on you this time have given you a raging hard-on as well as a headache. That is why you are at the bar, drinking vodka and tonics (more vodka, less tonic). It is not your favorite bar. It is peopled with defectives and men in suits hiding out from their jobs.
You know two people in the bar and like neither of them. The bartender is a bar-tanned pretty boy--coke-red nose and twitchy eyes. He talks too much and pours light. To your left is a man in a suit who smells of aftershave and cigarettes. And to your right is Angel--one of two people you know but don't like. Angel is big and black. He has tattoos, no front teeth and you have been told his cock is pierced. He is the Picasso of drink chiselers, his talent is sniffing out coin.
When he spots money he says, "Yeah, baby, yeah, baby, lay some on me. Spread some of that silver sunshine around and be happy."
Your talent is avoiding work by letting VA doctors poke you full of experimental drugs. You justify the drugs and what they might be doing to your nervous system and kidneys with a vague sense of patriotism, country and maybe a little God sprinkled in with all the other star-spangled bullshit. Somewhere a flag is being raised in your honor. Somewhere there is a vet getting the same drugs as you only he can't leave at night because he is bona fide crazy and can't even remember his name. You are full of great things, that is why they pay you. You are part of the control group--the normal. The want to know what you think, how the drugs make you feel. And for this they pay you.
"Hey, buddy," the Suit next to you says. "Bottom line is I want to know what the hell you're doing in here."
He laughs. His face looks like a split potato. You say "huh" and drop your jaw at him, hoping he will leave you alone. But there is no such luck. Herb has already hit him up for a Black Label and he wants to talk--a return on his investment, only he doesn't want it from Angel. He wants it from you because you have a pleasant face and look like a guy who might know everything there is to know about the AFC, the quarterback situation in New York, baseball, possibly even the weather. Your reflection in a Budweiser Beer mirror (the one with the horses and cart) confirms this suspicion that you are an average Joe. The world is full of people like you. People pass you on the street and they think nothing of you. That is what it means to be alive.
"I am normal," you tell the mirror. "I am the Great Maintainer," you say.
Suit looks at you like maybe he's picked the wrong pony and you are crazy. After all there are the drugs.
"Me," he says. "I've had it up to here."
He points to a spot just below his eyes, you've seen bullet holes in the same place. His hands shake.
"That's why I'm here. Fuck the job. Wife . . ." He waves a hand.
You nod and say "huh" again, pray for loud music.
Suit looks at you like you are stoned, which you are, but not on any drugs he can pronounce or get his hands on."No comprende,"
you say. You hope this will scare him away, make him think you're rude or retarded or both. But he is a businessman--used to pushing. It is what type A's do, they push type B's, C's and D's around to get their money. Type A's don't go away. You know this because you have spent your life avoiding them.
"Don't bullshit a bullshitter," the Suit says, giving you one of those "I could love you or beat you" slaps on the back. At this moment you would prefer the latter. Your theory on life is that the world is full of people who need and deserve a random beating. You do bad things, fuck
people over, maybe one day you get a knock at the door and it's a man in a black suit. He asks your name and when you tell him he nods and lays some wood upside your head. And when you are down on the floor holding your smashed face, you ask him why.
"Think about it," he says, and walks away. You never see him again. Maybe you put two and two together, learn that for every action there is a reaction. Consequences. But this is not for everybody. The world is also full of people who beat themselves up (drink, drugs, sex, sports, money) until they learn or don't learn.
Angel starts clicking his tongue, leering at this skinny-looking junkie shooting nine ball with a crooked stick. Angel has low standards, everybody in the bar knows this. His standards are lower than yours. His standards are two legs and a pulse.
The junkie looks young, pretty maybe a long time ago when she was twelve or thirteen. Now she is dirty and drunk and in this bar. Her hair is a mess and she laughs when she bends to take a shot because her ass gets grabbed by every guy in the poolroom.
A guy with a nose ring and black eye is making book in the corner on who takes her home first. She wants to bet on the bartender and pulls a twenty-dollar bill from her jeans and puts it in Nose Ring's face.
"Extra ten if I can combo the three ball into the nine, right corner pocket," she says.
Nose Ring sees her the ten-spot and thinks on the first bet. There are barroom ethics to be weighed.
Joe Mexico, a has-been waiter and vicious drunk, voices his disapproval from the pinball machine. He is the only other person you know besides Angel, although you suspect the Suit to your left, the one with a face like a split potato, wants like hell to be your friend.
"She can't fucking do that," Joe Mexico says.
You watch as Nose Ring explains to the junkie how she can't bet on herself. From where you stand they could be husband and wife, fighting,
working it out.
Two shifty-looking skate punks--too young to drink or shave--saddle up and cop a feel as she bends across the table. She laughs. You mark this down as her random beating: People who can laugh are exempt from random beatings.
Angel is not. He has been to prison, had his cock pierced (Ampallang--horizontal bar), lost job after job due to his drug abuse and still he deserves to be beaten on a regular basis. The problem is: Who to do the beating? After all Angel is strong, he has no teeth and nothing to lose.
You order another drink. The Suit next to you pays for it, mutters something in Spanish, laughs, slaps you on the back and stiffs the bartender a tip. The bartender licks his coke-chapped lips, touches his crotch and pulls at his nose. He's looking at his tip jar thinking about all the blow it will buy him. You figure him for semiannual beatings because he's under the impression that he's too good for this place and handsome.
The Suit slaps you on the back again and shakes until your head hurts.
"Cat got your tongue?" he asks. "I asked you a question, bought you a drink."
"I forgot the question," you say. And this is true.
"Why are you here?" the Suit asks.
You tell him that you couldn't think of anyplace better.
"I've seen worse places," he says. "I don't hear any gunshots. Where are the whores?"
"I'd like to see worse," you say.
"That can be arranged," he says. "Anything can be arranged."
Angel leans into you, points at the junkie and says, "Hey, baby, hey, baby." Whistles some more.
In the poolroom all bets are off. Joe Mexico stands at the end of the bar, swaybacked, muttering to himself. While somebody pumps money into the jukebox and punches up Metallica--the perfect soundtrack for a day like this.
The girl in the poolroom runs the table on one of the skate punks, who can't keep his eyes off of her ass. The Suit buys Angel another beer to shut him up.
This is a bad thing, you tell yourself. Angel never stops wanting. He is a black hole of need.
Angel grabs his beer from the bartender and hops off his stool and stands between you and the Suit. Angel has b.o. and breath that could peel paint. The beer goes down in three swallows.
Angel asks you, "How about another? You going to pony up for the Angel? Be his friend?"
You tell him to fuck off and he keeps smiling, tells you, "I want another."
The Suit next to you laughs and drums his fingernails on the bar. You smell a fight form in the air. In your opinion, which at the moment is polluted by the drugs they ran into your veins, the Suit is a stand-up guy--a real ballbreaker. You look to the bartender for help, but he turns and sticks his hands in the ice bin. You have a vision of beer glasses flying, blood on the tile (Angel's, possibly even yours, but not the
Suit's, people like him grow old and die in oak-paneled rooms surrounded by miserable family members). The music hurts your head. Angel leans into your face and smiles. He mouths the word "beer" and puts his hands all over the Suit, who you realize is drunk and ready for anything. The Suit slaps Angel's hands away and puffs out his chest. A real bad-ass motherfucker stuffed into a rumpled three-piece and pumped full of drink. You figure him for an ex-linebacker, some Division III school maybe--crazy, loved to hit, but had brains and people liked him, so he got sent off to an MBA program or maybe worked and hustled his way into the money. You don't work. Instead you allow nurses to thread needles into your arm, drip drugs through IVs and ask questions.
In the hospital this morning they asked you questions.
Nurse: "Do you feel sad, blue, depressed?"
"Do parts of your body feel abnormally large?" The IV dripped three drops of some clear liquid that looked like tears. The room had no clock, you measured time by the drip.
"Does the radio sometimes play your thoughts?"
You paused. Nurses love pauses.
"Have you ever felt like hurting yourself or others?"
You answered no, no, no, no. No a thousand times. You want radios to play your thoughts. You don't consider yourself a violent person. You have violent thoughts and theories that you sometimes let slip to the nurses while you are under the influence of whatever they happen to be pumping into your arm. They tell you that you are the most colorful member of the control group and after a while they learn to laugh at your theories and call them charming, followed by more questions about the room and your body. They wanted to know if people are out to get you. Your answer: No. A big long hallway of noes and then the drugs, more than you could handle--like a love letter straight to your heart.
The Suit says, "No. No. No. Not this time!" He is talking to Angel, who is panting like a dog. The girl has gone back to the poolroom. Nose Ring is playing cribbage with one of the skate punks, who doesn't understand why you need pegs and a board to play cards.
Angel stands and screams, "I want. I want. I want. I want." Nobody listens even though it sounds like poetry.
You have another vision and decide to stand just as the Suit swings a beer mug at Angel's head. The mug explodes, spattering sour beer on your face. Angel falls on the tile. His head takes a satisfying bounce off a barstool before thudding on the floor. The Suit stands frozen in mid-swing, a broken mug handle in his palm. You poke your tongue out like a parrot and lick at the sour beer on your face. You taste blood (not yours) and figure that it is probably not a good idea to be licking Angel's blood, or anybody's blood for that matter. You look at the Suit and see a failed psycho linebacker with gray hair and a face laced with fractured blood vessels.
"Worse," you say. Nobody hears you.
The bartender screams something and hops up on the bar, crouches into a karate stance. He moves his hands like Chinese fans and snarls at the Suit. The poolroom crowd huddles in the archway carrying cue sticks for weapons. One of the skate punks has his chain-wallet circling over his head ready to strike. You point at the Suit, who drops the mug handle to the floor and wraps his arms around you. Angel lies between you as you try hard to conjure up some sympathy for him, but the urge to send him a kick circles around your brain like a buzzard.
The Suit begins to sob into your chest.
"I dunno what happened," he says. "I mean one minute . . . There's going to be hell to pay for this."
The bartender lets fly with a roundhouse kick followed by a series of chops. Everything misses and he snarls some more. You give him points for an impressive crouch and menacing snarls and wonder what kind of Bruce Lee shit he'd be kicking ass with if it wasn't for the blow and late hours.
You resist any comforting words you might whisper into the Suit's ear. Angel groans underneath your feet as the cut in his skull rivers blood out onto the tile. The blood makes sucking sounds when you try to move your feet. You tell yourself that it could be worse, and you try to imagine how. There will be police and questions. Answering no will not be an option. The Suit will claim you as a friend, maybe even his best buddy. The drugs will pass out of your system and the world will seem normal and controlled again. You will have to state your full name and occupation--Carpenter/Guinea Pig--for the record.
Then you hear Nose Ring taking bets on whose ass the mug-swinging Willy Loman will take on next. Your name is mentioned--people always hurt the ones they love.
The Suit's clench tightens into a bearhug.
"You understand," he says, sobbing, and it's like he's coming apart on you. Air becomes a priority. Through the buzz of the bar you hear Joe Mexico taking action on your ass going down hard. You shuffle out of Angel's blood, which is more than a pool. A lake.
"What do I understand," you manage, trying to push away from the Suit's embrace.
But he goes clamp happy on you. Things crack in your chest. Air is like cement in your mouth. Together you slip on Angel's blood. The Suit whispers sweet nothings into your ear. Odds are this is where your random beating theory queers. You let them pump drugs into you, poke at your brain with stupid questions. You work jobs that you hate because they beat you up. And now this? There is good money out there and even odds that you're going down next. And you want what? You understand?
Excerpted from What Salmon Know by Elwood Reid. . Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.